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Home hunters fall prey to scam, finding prices too good to be true

HACKENSACK, N.J. — Karen Dolan couldn't believe her eyes: two-bedroom apartments in prime Bergen County, N.J., locations for $1,200 or less.

The prices were bogus, part of the latest scam hitting northern New Jersey and other parts of the country, an attempt to get would-be renters to pay a modest security deposit and to get them to disclose personal information that could be used to steal their money.

It's a scam that combines hopes built around a depressed real estate market, religious charity and the growing popularity of Craigslist as the go-to source for some apartment hunters.

Throw in a touch of the Nigerian money-laundering letters and you have an idea of what Dolan faced when she turned to Craigslist in her search for an apartment without paying a Realtor's fee.

Three times last month she contacted people listing houses in Tenafly, Teaneck and Franklin Lakes, N.J., seeking more information "on properties that sounded too good to be true," she told me.

Each time she heard back from "gentlemen (who) contacted me with similar stories about going to Africa as part of the church (and) therefore were renting out their houses for a lower cost."

Later she got a similar response about a house in Ramsey, N.J.

Like many scams, this one had lots of details that added to the credibility. One included a link to a legitimate Georgia-based African ministry for which the supposed owner worked, and each told how he was willing to take less in rent if he could find a person who would take good care of the property.

Also, the three properties we were able to check — the "owner" did not provide an address for the Teaneck house — were on the market or had been recently, although only one was currently available.

Even though the replies came from different people with different e-mail addresses, they included almost identical descriptions of the properties, written by someone to whom English was evidently not a first language.

"It includes facilities such as water and heat laundry facilities, air condition, internet and telephone access and a car park and other necessary facilities," Williams Micky told Dolan about the Tenafly house.

Good to know that homes come with water, telephone access and a car park!

But the Tenafly house didn't come with any rental possibilities, because it is for sale for $750,000, said Gerry D'Andrea, a Coldwell Banker agent in Cresskill, N.J. "It was never for rent."

If it were, Dolan would have to pay about $3,200 a month for the three-bedroom Dutch colonial on the beautifully manicured property, nearly three times the $1,200 price in the Craigslist ad that included a photo taken from a multiple listing site.

"If you see someone trying to rent it for $1,200 or $1,500, you know there's something wrong," D'Andrea said.

The same was true for the two-family house in Ramsey, N.J.

The "owner" said he was a volunteer with Go West Africa, a missionary project of American churches that takes "the Gospel to places with no other missionary presence."

The organization is legit, but there is no reason to believe that the property's unnamed owner and the rental offer are. Lauren Brown said she rented the upstairs unit in June for $1,500, nearly double the $800 posted on Craigslist.

Of course, the price doesn't matter since neither unit in the house is available. But that didn't stop several Craigslist users from stopping by last weekend, drawn by the bargain price.

An advertised four-bedroom colonial on "3.6 acres luxury area of Franklin Lakes" is available, but not for the $1,100 posted on Craigslist.

It's $2,750, said Patrick Kelly, vice president of the McBride Agency. "We're getting tons of calls with the misquoted prices."

The house was listed on Craigslist — at the real price — but was later listed by someone not connected with his office at the lower price, Kelly said.

He said that the agent handling the property had contacted Craigslist to get the phony ad pulled, but "they won't take it off."

A reporter tried to contact Craigslist, but got no response to phone and e-mail messages.

The company does post a good scam alert on its Web site, but it is disturbing that it seems unconcerned about a bogus ad, especially when similar scams have been popping up all over the country.

With the three the reporter looked into, the convoluted language, unrealistic prices and requests to have key deposits of $400 to $500 sent to Africa were red flags that this is a giant scam, but some others have not been that obvious.

That's why you need to be careful in dealing with Craigslist.

Started in 1995 as an e-mail list of San Francisco events, Craigslist has become a major international Web site for local classified ads for "jobs, housing, goods, services, romance, local activities, advice — just about anything really," as it says on its Web site.

Its numbers are staggering: used by 50 million people in the U.S. alone, 20 billion page views per month, more than 40 million new classified ads self-published each month, the company says.

A key is the term "self-published" because it presents an open door to fraud and scams.

Unfortunately, the scam artists have figured out how to take advantage of an apparent flaw in what has been a great service.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.